By Elio Iannacci - Monday, May 13, 2013 - 0 Comments
Three Gaga tributes are under way, though a Toronto show is first, and most ambitious
Few pop stars have infiltrated as many cultural spheres as Lady Gaga. Her sound has influenced popsters such as Selena Gomez and revived dance music on the Billboard charts. Her outlandish wardrobe has inspired collections from Jean Paul Gaultier and Donatella Versace (not to mention that legion of Gaga impersonators worldwide). Her first fragrance, Fame, launched last year and sold more than six million bottles during its first week of shelf life. Universities have added courses examining her social significance and sexual persona. It’s that multi-faceted career B.C.-born playwright Alistair Newton wanted to examine, and he’s chosen to do it in the one arena Gaga has yet to invade, though she cites it as a major influence: musical theatre.
The result is Of a Monstrous Child: A Gaga Musical, a show opening May 14 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto that has already had some interest from theatres in New York. Directed and written by Newton, it explores Stefani Germanotta’s manic route from private-school pariah to digital-age pop monarch.
Newton wasn’t the only one with the idea. Two U.S. theatre companies have also been working on Gaga-centric musicals, both riffing on her album titles. The first is the New York-based Glitter: The Fame Monster project, which has reportedly been on hold since 2011. Another enigmatic production is The Fame Monster: A Musical, announced in 2009. Both projects plan to mirror schmaltzy revues such as We Will Rock You and Jersey Boys. Newton has gone in a different direction. “Those [musicals] sound like everything I didn’t want to make,” he says, noting that his work was informed by intellectuals such as Judith Butler, Bell Hooks and the legendary Michel de Montaigne, whose famous 16th-century essay about the nature of strangeness became part of the musical’s title. “I find her to be far too much of a complicated subject for that method of theatre,” he says. “I didn’t want to frame her in something that resembles Mamma Mia!”
By Emma Teitel - Tuesday, March 5, 2013 at 10:00 AM - 0 Comments
Emma Teitel on the real dance revolution — in men’s ballet
You could call it the glass curtain: unlike almost every other industry on the planet, ballet favours women over men. Much of the art’s history is one in which“everything was built for the female,” says Ukrainian ballet dancer and choreographer Ivan Putrov. “The female dancer was the top of the crown.” It’s a man’s world—unless, of course, you’re a man in tights. Every now and then, there was a Nijinsky or a Baryshnikov, but mostly, ballet and its stars were traditionally female.
Now, finally, almost 15 years after the success of Billy Elliot brought ballet into the mainstream and increased male enrolment at ballet schools, the tide has begun to turn. From the lowbrow— the televised dance competition, So You Think You Can Dance—to the high—Putrov’s critically acclaimed all-male ballet, Men in Motion finished its run in London this month—men are no longer shying away from the barre. The School of Alberta Ballet in Calgary, for example, has doubled its enrolment in a boys’ program that launched last year. The class it was to offer in April will likely be moved to September, in part to keep up with growing numbers. Meran Currie-Roberts, the school’s manager of development and communications, says there is “huge demand” for year-round boys programming.
This may have something to do with the way dance is marketed to boys today. The school’s website isn’t subtle about showcasing the similarities between traditionally macho activities and dance. It includes photos of an ice-hockey goalie, a soccer player and a young boy doing the splits in a leotard. Currie-Roberts says the school’s outreach program in rural Alberta always includes jumping demonstrations, “as well as a battle scene from Romeo and Juliet, with prop swords. The boys who have never seen ballet before are just astounded by the athleticism.” The message? Ballet is just as rigorous as any sport, if not more so.
Steven Melendez, a principal dancer with New York Theatre Ballet, would agree. He says he was teased mercilessly as a kid for being a ballet dancer—until the day he caught a baseball in full splits, foot planted safely on base. “Nobody laughed at me after that,” he says. Perhaps it’s the Billy Elliot effect on steroids: ballet isn’t for sissies. In fact, you may be a sissy if you can’t do ballet.
Take Guillaume Côté, a principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada, who was a hockey goalie while growing up in Lac-à-la-Croix, Que. Côté recently collaborated with Broadway performer Paul Nolan (Jesus Christ Superstar)—who’s now with the Stratford Festival) and was also a hockey kid in Rouleau, Sask.—in a performance of West Side Story’s Something’s Coming, which aired as a short during Cineplex Odeon’s screenings of the Metropolitan Opera this month. Nolan sings, Côté dances. They agree the arts can be sold differently to boys. “One goal in my career is to expose more dance to young men,” Côté says. In a recent project, a short dance piece called Lost in Motion, he wears shorts that wouldn’t be out of place on an Olympian. “I wanted to strip it of the tights and frillies, and just show what it is: awesome and athletic.”
“Everyone thinks of guys in the arts as different,” says Nolan, who was accepted to the prestigious athletics program at Calgary’s Notre Dame High School. “But you can be on a provincial hockey team and you can be on a stage. I think the human mind likes to categorize things and restrict them.” Nolan is aware of the taunting faced by boys in the arts, which is why, he says, he challenges stereotypes in his work. In 2008, he played a gay character in Cabaret. “The obvious thing to do was to make him effeminate,” hew says. “I made him the most dangerous person on the stage.”
Ballet’s new machismo has its drawbacks. Melendez says ever since Baryshnikov “jumped higher than anybody else” and dancing competitions appeared on TV, “there’s almost been an arms race amongst men in ballet over how many times you can jump and how high.” Artistic expression may suffer. “It’s turning into aerobics or gymnastics,” he says, “which makes it more accessible and appealing to a mass audience, but may not be the best thing for ballet.”
By John Fraser - Friday, February 8, 2013 at 2:00 PM - 0 Comments
Bolshoi ballerina Svetlana Lunkina explains what she’s doing with an unused return ticket to Moscow
The two worlds that Svetlana Lunkina lives and works in do not jibe very well these days. A prima ballerina at the peak of her career at the legendary Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, her life there has become increasingly scarred with wild and unproven criminal accusations about her husband and a savage attack on her artistic director.
Her domestic life in Canada, on the other hand, is almost picture perfect, with a dream house in bucolic Kleinberg, Ont., just outside Toronto, two young children whom she describes as embodying “the essence of my life,” and a quiet career of part-time teaching. The only connecting point between the two lives, it seems, is the miserably cold weather in both places, although Lunkina maintains, “the cold in Kleinberg is better than the cold in Moscow.”
Beyond the surface, the story is infinitely more complicated than a lot of stories that have recently appeared, some of which claim she is “defecting” to Canada because of the troubles back home. In fact, Lunkina is still a star of the Bolshoi, on leave, and is still listed on the company’s roster of top dancers. And unlike the famous Russian defectors of the old Communist Soviet Union, she has not had to escape from behind the Iron Curtain. She can go back and forth at will and has maintained a home in Canada for nearly a decade. Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, January 30, 2013 at 1:42 PM - 0 Comments
Why one of Russia’s most beloved institutions is so cutthroat
The world was shocked earlier this month when a masked assailant threw acid in the face of Sergei Filin, the artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, requiring him to have operations to save his eyesight. But it was just one of many scandals at Russia’s most beloved arts institution. In the past two years, Filin has had his tires slashed by what he claimed were his artistic enemies at the company; a deputy director was forced to resign after photos of him in bed with a man were circulated online, reportedly by a rival; there were allegations of trading sex for promotions; one ballerina who sued the company told the Daily Beast, “Men with knives threatened to kill my ballet partners.” Another Bolshoi dancer fled to Canada this week after being threatened over her husband’s business.
For North Americans, the whole thing seems mystifying. Here, the world of classical ballet and dance is a low-stakes world. But Russians “take a special pride in the world of ballet and opera,” says Valery Gergiev, the celebrated conductor of the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. “There are many national heroes and national treasures.” That’s the good side of a world where culture is taken seriously enough to have actual scandals.
By Suzanne Bowness - Thursday, September 13, 2012 at 5:00 AM - 0 Comments
The incubator for pros and home for amateurs thrives 100 years after its first play
Rich Little was moping around the house. The 18-year-old had vague dreams of a career on the stage, so his mother took him down to Ottawa Little Theatre, where he auditioned for his first role. He got the part—and four lines. “I got a laugh,” he says. “And I walked off stage and said, ‘That’s what I’m going to do for a living.’”
Last week, Little—a master impressionist who has appeared everywhere from The Ed Sullivan Show to Laugh-In to Hollywood Squares—brought his latest one-man act, Jimmy Stewart & Friends, from Las Vegas to Ottawa for a benefit concert to honour the community theatre where he got his start. “I think if it wasn’t for the Ottawa Little Theatre I wouldn’t have gotten into showbiz,” he says. “I learned my craft there.” Although he performed in about 15 shows beginning with that first role in the mid-’50s, Little says he also used to sit in the wings and watch other performances. “It was a great education to see really skilled actors work.”
The oldest continuously producing communty theatre in Canada turns 100 this year; it predates the National Arts Centre by 56 years. Some very early shows were in what is now the Canadian Museum of Nature. Its niche is mainstream productions, the standards as opposed to the edgy and the avant-garde, offered at reasonable prices.
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, June 21, 2012 at 5:30 AM - 0 Comments
Television and movie stars are saving Broadway one limited engagement at a time
Broadway theatre used to have its own stars who could run a show for a year. Now it rents stars from Hollywood for limited engagements. One of the big shows this summer is a revival of the magic-rabbit play, Harvey, starring Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory; it will run until Aug. 5, when Parsons’ TV show will take him back to Hollywood. The hottest ticket on Broadway this year was a four-month revival of Death of a Salesman, with Academy Award winner Philip Seymour Hoffman, and James Earl Jones is currently starring in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man for a similar run. “With limited runs you can bring in a lot of the Hollywood and TV stars,” says Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the trade association the Broadway League. And these stars are keeping Broadway viable.
Producers prefer an indefinite run rather than setting a cut-off date, but shows without stars often have trouble staying afloat. Last year, a revival of the musical Promises, Promises had to close after only 291 performances when Sean Hayes (Will & Grace) and Kristin Chenoweth (GCB) finished their runs. Recently, another ’60s hit, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, was revived for Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe, but the show closed four months later, unable to survive with lesser stars such as replacements Darren Criss (Glee) and singer Nick Jonas.
That makes the limited run a less risky proposition than an open-ended run. Film and TV stars, who can’t commit to a long run, can use shorter engagements to do theatre and connect with their fans. Michael Feingold, theatre critic for the Village Voice, says it gives them the opportunity to play “the role they’ve heard about and dreamed of playing for their entire lives—Blanche DuBois or Hamlet or Uncle Vanya.” And for producers, short runs can have an advantage if the star sells tickets. Brian DeVito, a blogger who writes about theatre marketing, explains that a limited run eliminates “the ‘I’ll see it eventually’ mentality. Audiences have to act sooner rather than later to buy tickets.”
By Barbara Amiel - Sunday, June 17, 2012 at 6:10 PM - 0 Comments
As a drug trip, Einstein on the Beach would stun. As far as opera goes, our reviewer says, it’s a hoax
Basically it started when I accepted an invitation to a dinner in honour of the creators of the 1976 avant-garde opera Einstein on the Beach, put on last weekend at Toronto’s Luminato festival: music by Philip Glass, direction by Robert Wilson, choreography by Lucinda Childs. Wilson explained the libretto was a communal effort; fairly strange since there is no libretto to speak of—but then one of the persons creating the “spoken text” is autistic, which might explain the word deﬁcit and repetition of symbols. Normally I would not mention a neurological condition but it was emphasized in the pre-opera talk by the director.
I should mention that Toronto was awash in High Culture last week and I dodged from the Grifﬁn Poetry Prize events to Luminato’s Einstein. The Grifﬁn Poetry Prize is a universally Good Thing. It would be a good thing even if a Black Mountain poem won it, an avant-garde form of poetry that came to mind during the many and lengthy libretto lacunas of Einstein. True, the American school of Black Mountain poetry only had a lifespan of 23 years (1933-56 ofﬁcially) although it seemed more like an eternity if you had to listen to it as I did at Canadian poetry festivals in the ’70s. Various critical descriptions explain that Black Mountain poetry was “progressive” with an open-form approach “driven by the natural patterns of breath and utterance.” God, it was vile.
Toronto aviator and businessman Scott Grifﬁn and his wife, Krystyne, endowed the Grifﬁn prize with dollops of loot, making it the richest poetry prize in the world ($65,000 for the best Canadian and the same again for the international winner). Its independent jury could theoretically give all the prize money to some current equivalent of Black Mountain poetry if the moment embraced that fashion but tant pis. A bespectacled 17-year- old, who appeared not to be spotty though you’d think what with his thick glasses and poetry keenness he would be, won Grifﬁn’s high school competition for poetry reading. Scott Grifﬁn claims his love of poetry sprung from memorizing a poem whenever he was bad as a child. I’m not sure a parent today could demand such compliance, but thank you, parents Anthony and Kitty Grifﬁn.
By Anthony A. Davis - Thursday, May 24, 2012 at 9:57 AM - 0 Comments
In ‘Endure: A Run Woman Show’ the audience follows writer and performer Melanie Jones at a ‘race pace’
When you buy a ticket for Melanie Jones’s play, you get a race bib. You should also bring a water bottle because this play runs long. About five kilometres long. The audience follows her through parks and down paths as she delves into the emotions, memories and angst that trails virtually every runner. It’s all there, if you are willing to lace up for Endure: A Run Woman Show, an unconventional 75-minute jog-u-dramedy about the inner world of marathon runners.
While Endure had sold-out success in New York in July and her hometown of Calgary in August, Jones is really excited to take it to Ravenscourt Park in London during the Olympics and then the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, thanks to grants from the province of Alberta and the city of Calgary.
The play begins with a warm-up walk with the audience—usually about 20 people—wearing iPods that play a narrative along with original music. “Think about your own story,” Jones’s voice says as she begins to stretch in front of you. “What brought you here? What brought you through it all, and you’re here? The finish line might be hard to get to, but the start line is the thing.” The audience walks and runs behind Jones in short bursts at an easy “race pace,” she assures. It’s a play she describes as “raw, life-affirming. And there are pee jokes.”
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, May 16, 2012 at 10:37 AM - 0 Comments
Critics have been harsh over the Quebec director’s crack at the fantasy opera.
Nothing could stop Robert Lepage—except Wagner’s Ring. The Quebec director has received great reviews for his plays, his opera productions and his spectacular shows for Cirque du Soleil. But then the Metropolitan Opera invited him to stage the mother of all epic fantasy cycles, Richard Wagner’s four-opera event about a bunch of gods and warrior maidens fighting over a magic ring made of gold. And in the last month, as the Met unveiled the completed cycle and sent it out into theatres for HD broadcasts (along with a documentary on how it was made), Lepage received his first critical drubbing. “Over about 15 hours, the relatively static staging comes across for long sections as cumbersome and monotonous,” says Wayne Gooding, editor of Opera Canada. Though there was some criticism of the casting—especially after star singer Jonas Kaufmann had to pull out of the role of Siegmund, a heroic tenor who sleeps with his own sister—most of the brickbats were reserved for the staging. Alex Ross of The New Yorker called it “the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history.” The opera company was accused of forcing a radio station, WQXR, to pull a blog post critical of Lepage’s work. The Globe and Mail wondered whether “the much-celebrated Robert Lepage [has] finally jumped the shark.” Maybe. Or maybe the Ring is just an impossible beast to slay for any director, especially in North America.
The Ring has always posed an irresistible challenge for theatres, because Wagner wrote more into his saga of gods and monsters than any stage can possibly show. The first scene of the cycle is supposed to take place at the bottom of a river, with three mermaids swimming around in it; the hero, Siegfried, makes his entrance with a live bear and kills a dragon in front of the audience, and the work ends with more or less the collapse of the entire world. The piece has so many magical disappearances, transformations and animals on stage that a 19th-century critic called it “a damned pantomime.” But the directors who typically do opera and theatre aren’t always prepared to handle a scene where a trickster god fools an evil dwarf into turning himself into a frog. In some productions, the special effects don’t work; in others, they work but make the piece impossible to take seriously. That wouldn’t please Wagner, who intended the piece as a revolutionary theatre work where music would be “one with the drama.”
By Joanne Latimer - Wednesday, May 9, 2012 at 10:30 AM - 0 Comments
Real-life raconteurs who tell not-so-tall tales offer a break from staged reality shows
“The girl was hard to hate,” deadpanned Jessica Salomon, talking about her main rival growing up in Montreal. “She had long blond hair. She had a boyfriend and, as if that wasn’t enough, she actually lived in the Queen Elizabeth hotel, like Eloise!”
Childhood frenemies, nasty breakups, family squabbles—it’s all fair game on storytelling night, a popular pastime for audiences craving something more authentic than staged reality television. Salomon, a comic and former war crimes lawyer in The Hague, was one of six people performing recently with This Really Happened at the Blue Metropolis literary festival. Not all were professional performers: there was a teacher, a novelist, a nanny and a social worker, too.
The storytelling group, founded in 2007 by documentary filmmaker Tally Abecassis, has six events under its belt. She selects the evening’s stories, which must be told without notes. This Really Happened is just one of several Canadian groups, like Confabulation in Montreal and the Toronto-based Raconteurs, inspired by the Moth, a true storytelling movement in New York. Likeminded events in Toronto include the Real Secrets Show, where audience and storytellers sign non-disclosure agreements and wear masks, and the monthly Awkward evening at Comedy Bar. Audiences are happy to cringe and commiserate with the brave people on stage.
By Simona Rabinovitch - Monday, March 26, 2012 at 11:54 AM - 0 Comments
An immersive Shakespeare production in a Chelsea hotel has taken New York by storm
I saw the orgy twice: four writhing bodies in various states of undress dancing wildly to techno music while a strobe light pulsed all around us. One fellow, naked but for a decapitated ram’s head, jumped on top of a table as the others groped each other. There was blood, a knife and, if my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me, a newborn baby. As the frenzy wound down, one of the women, a witch, stared into my eyes as she pulled her dress up over her breasts and ran down a dark staircase. I ran after her. Others followed with the discretion of stampeding elephants. She led us down a dark hallway and into a secret room with a mossy green forest full of trees, branches and a bucket of river water. As she gave herself a sponge bath, the witch gazed at me again. I stared back, mesmerized, and emboldened by my anonymity, thanks to a face mask. When she walked over to me and placed her hand on my cheek, her face was so close I thought she might kiss me. (She might have. When I later removed it, I saw what could have been a lipstick stain.) Her eyes filled with tears and her lips formed a smile. Or was it a smirk? You can never be sure with witches.
This psychosexual frolic was neither pagan fantasy nor acid trip but one of many mind-bending scenes that swallowed me whole at Sleep No More. No wonder this “immersive theatre” production based on Macbeth has taken New York by storm. Created by site-specific British theatre company Punchdrunk, Sleep No More takes place in a custom-built Chelsea venue, the McKittrick Hotel (à la Hitchcock’s Vertigo, another key Sleep No More reference) and tells its stories through movement, dance and emotions—not words.
By Brian D. Johnson - Tuesday, March 6, 2012 at 2:26 PM - 0 Comments
After a triumphant march from London’s West End to Broadway, War Horse opened last week at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre to rhapsodic reviews. Sporting a Canadian cast, the Mirvish production has wowed audiences and critics alike with its robust spectacle of horse puppets brought magically to life amid the fury of the First World War. So when I had an opportunity to see a recent performance, I was pumped. Unlike some of my film critic confreres, I’d actually liked the Spielberg film War Horse (adapted from the same 1982 children’s book by Michael Morpurgo). I’d surrendered to its epic sentiment, flung myself through its barbed-wire gauntlet of sentiment and cliché, and quietly wept. The acclaim for the play was far more unanimous than for the movie, so I was fully expecting to be blown away.
To voice a dissenting view on War Horse, the play, is as uncool as confessing affection for War Horse, the movie. But the play was hard to love. Before I get lynched for crimes of critical insanity, let me clarify. I loved the staging. And I loved the horse puppets. Everything people say about these strangely animated creatures is true. Even though they’re being trotted around by clearly visible puppeteers, you watch those horses and believe they’re real. The suspension of disbelief is uncanny. The horses are fully formed characters, layered with uncanny nuances of motion—and emotion.
I wish I could say the same for the humans. I’m no theatre critic, but I was shocked by the strident pitch of the performances and the unleavened melodrama of the dialogue. Most of it was shouted, not spoken. Of course, drill sergeants and soldiers in the battlefield are supposed to be yelling at each other. But even on the farm, before Joey, our horse hero, gets sent into battle, virtually every scene is shouted.
Yes, I realize this is theatre, not film, and the actors have to play to a massive house. But after being spoiled by the naturalist brilliance of dramatists like Robert Lepage, I’m always surprised that the old declamatory style of stage acting is still considered normal in a Broadway-scale production—especially one that employs such breathtaking innovation on other levels.
By Martin Patriquin - Thursday, February 16, 2012 at 8:20 AM - 0 Comments
Sugar Sammy’s bilingual comedy will make you laugh—and make you smarter
Samir Khullar, the smarmy, potty-mouthed comedian who goes by Sugar Sammy, has a joke about the NDP in his new show. “Their slogan was ‘Working Together,’ ” he says, referring to the party’s unexpected breakthrough in Quebec in the last federal election, “but once they won it became ‘Holy S–t What Do We Do Now?’ ” The delivery, however, is hardly straightforward. He says the first part in English, the slogan and the bit about winning in French, then goes back to English for the punchline. He deliberately says the slogan with the tortured accent of an anglophone trying to speak French—“trah-vay-on en-som-bluh”—a not-very-subtle poke at the NDP’s earnest attempts to make the party appear more bilingual after its landslide win.
If you are a French person who doesn’t understand English, or if you’re an English person who doesn’t understand Quebec’s official language, then you’ll want to skip You’re Gonna Rire, Khullar’s new one-man show. Cheekily described as “50.5 per cent English, 49.5 per cent French” (another historical reference, this one to the 1995 referendum results), You’re Gonna Rire is thought to be the first bilingual stand-up comedy production in Canada.
There is a joke to be made about an Indian guy bridging the two solitudes—and yes, Khullar has one. But it certainly says something about Quebec, where English has long been seen as a threat, that You’re Gonna Rire has already sold out its 27-date run. “Five years ago this wouldn’t have happened,” Khullar said in an interview at Vallier, a francophone watering hole in Old Montreal. “When we get 1,000 positive comments, we don’t care about the three negative. Of course, it only takes one guy with a gun.”
By Jessica Allen - Monday, February 13, 2012 at 5:59 PM - 0 Comments
Watch Dan Clarkson and Jeff Turner perform the first Potter novel in under a minute (almost)
Two former BBC children’s hosts, Dan Clarkson And Jeff Turner, have co-written a hit show called, Potted Potter: The Unauthorized Harry Experience – A Parody by Dan and Jeff in which they’ve boiled down all seven of the Harry Potter books into 70 minutes. The two entertainers, who have affability to spare, also star in the production, playing every character in the hit show, which had four sold out runs in London and Edinburgh and generated rave reviews in the U.K. Toronto marks the show’s first North American stop. Dan and Jeff recently spoke with Maclean’s; they even performed the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, in under a minute (almost). And we’ve got the video to prove it.
Q: How did you manage to get JK Rowling to give you guys her blessing?
Jeff: Well, some of her team came to the show very early on so obviously they know it’s happening and she knows it’s happening and that’s kind of where it’s at. We are very much the unauthorized Harry experience. But I mean, she’s been lovely because obviously she’s huge and powerful and could pretty much do anything, and yet we’re here in Toronto doing the show so we’re doing something right.
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, January 26, 2012 at 9:20 AM - 0 Comments
Musicals are breaking box-office records even as reviewers pour on the vitriol
This past Christmas could go down in history as the moment when theatre critics officially became redundant. That’s because Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark grossed almost $3 million in a week, an all-time Broadway record. Spider-Man is a musical that got two separate sets of witheringly bad reviews, first for the preview performances, then for the heavily revised version now playing. And none of it seemed to matter. Rick Miramontez, the Spider-Man spokesman who spent a year being upbeat about the show’s chances, has finally been proven right. “It occasionally happens,” he says, “that the theatre-going public takes a show to its heart that critics didn’t.”
Musicals have always found it easier to survive bad reviews than smaller plays. But they never used to be able to weather the kind of abuse that the New York Times’ Ben Brantley gave Spider-Man (he wrote that it went from “jaw-dropping badness” in tryouts to “a bore” in the final version) or the negative word of mouth that came from all the bad critical attention. “Previously, if the New York Times loved or hated a Broadway show, the life of the show could be affected dramatically,” says Aubrey Dan, a Toronto-based producer whose shows include the upcoming Broadway-bound Prince of Broadway. Today, the critics and the public are often so out of sync that when the New York Times’ Patrick Healy listed the top-grossing musicals, he went out of his way to mention The Book of Mormon was “critically acclaimed”; almost everything else on the list was not.
It may be that with a show like Spider-Man, the bad publicity—including the dismal reviews—actually made people want to see it. The production became legendary for its accidents, including a stuntman who fell 30 feet onto the stage, and the producers fired director/writer Julie Taymor after she kept the show in tryouts for months. The disasters brought the show coverage that dwarfed anything a theatre reviewer could give. “The sometimes dramatic headlines have certainly generated a huge, international interest in the show,” Miramontez says. Who needs Ben Brantley to attract people to a musical when Conan O’Brien spent weeks making fun of it for an international audience?
By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, December 20, 2011 at 10:50 AM - 0 Comments
At 83, with more recognition than ever, the lyricist hints at a comeback
Just like his musicals, Stephen Sondheim’s Look, I Made a Hat has an ambiguous ending. The book, a sequel to last year’s Finishing the Hat, completes the annotated collection of lyrics by one of musical theatre’s greatest figures. But the book contains little recent material, and Sondheim, who hasn’t had a Broadway show since 1994, seems unsure if he will create a new one. In the book’s epilogue, he notes ruefully that “most theatre songwriters sound old-fashioned after the age of 50.” The bad boy of musical theatre, who appalled Broadway escapists with challenging shows like Sweeney Todd and Company, sometimes seems to be coming to terms with being an elder statesman.
To the disappointment of some fans, Sondheim spent the last decade mostly revising existing works, such as Road Show, a troubled musical he first tried to launch in 1996 and that had a series of short-lived, out-of-town and off-Broadway productions until 2008. Mark Horowitz, a music specialist at the Library of Congress who interviewed the 83-year-old lyricist for his 2002 book, Sondheim on Music, says that Sondheim hasn’t “made any conscious decision to focus on revising,” but that it’s mostly a result of the increased cost of getting anything produced on Broadway. Still, Horowitz adds, “I do know that he feels it’s hard to live up to the expectations other people have of him.” After all, Sondheim has won an Oscar, eight Tonys and shared a Pulitzer Prize for drama for the 1984 musical Sunday in the Park with George.
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, November 16, 2011 at 11:30 AM - 0 Comments
Musicals are making an appearance on opera stages: be careful what you pick.
Opera companies are running out of popular operas to put on the stage. Luckily, there are plenty of popular musicals available to produce instead. Musicals are becoming a bigger part of the operatic repertoire: the Vancouver Opera produced a fully staged version of West Side Story last month, American opera diva Deborah Voigt appeared in a fully staged version of Annie Get Your Gun at the Glimmerglass Opera this past summer, and in early 2012, the Chicago Lyric Opera will present Show Boat. James Wright, general director of the Vancouver Opera, says that opera companies “need to be less rigid than we’ve been in the past.” In some cases, that means putting on a Broadway show instead of another La Bohème.
Leonard Bernstein, the composer of West Side Story, was one of the first to suggest that musicals were the true American opera, and some opera houses have done musicals in previous decades. But the musical temptation has become greater for classically oriented theatres, even overseas: the Théâtre du Châtelet, a house known for operas and operettas, has recently brought material like The Sound of Music to Paris. It helps that these shows sell; West Side Story did well for Vancouver, and Lyric Opera of Chicago general director Anthony Freud says that “when we surveyed our subscribers, almost 70 per cent were very enthusiastic about Show Boat.”
Besides, if a company wants to put on a great work of U.S. music theatre, it may not have much choice but to put on a musical. Except for Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which has just been done as a Broadway musical, the 20th century came and went without producing many beloved American operas. Lawrence Johnson of Chicago Classical Review lamented that Show Boat will “accelerate the disappearance of our own operatic heritage.” But there aren’t a lot of North American opera writers who rank with Show Boat’s Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, either with the public or critics.
By Brian D. Johnson - Wednesday, November 2, 2011 at 3:42 PM - 1 Comment
It’s amazing how much the eye can take in a span of 12 hours. Yesterday I experienced a perfect storm of artistic extravagance. It began with watching one of the more shocking scenes of projectile vomiting I’ve ever seen outside a gross out comedy—at a morning press screening of Roman Polanski’s Carnage—Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly play two couples whose Manhattan civility goes to pieces in a human train wreck reminiscent of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Then I began the afternoon ogling a bazillion-dollar 144-diamond tiara at a preview of Grace Kelly: From Princess to Movie Star, the new exhibit at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, while fantasizing about staging a Lightbox heist. In the evening, I attended the Canadian Stage premiere of Orpheus and Eurydice, an outrageous dance piece by Quebec choreographer Marie Chouinard, which reinterprets Greek myth in a high-art orgy of bare breasts, black dildos, primal screams—and puppet serpents wriggling from mouths and loins. If the road to excess does indeed lead to the palace of wisdom, by the end of the night I should have been filthy rich with enlightenment
I’ll catch up to Polanski’s Carnage in another blog—and maybe I’ll even get around to reviewing the glittering gowns and jewels in TIFF’s Grace Kelly exhibit, which premieres tonight with a royal visit from “Their Serene Highnesses” Prince Albert and Princess Charlene of Monaco. But I’m still reeling from Orpheus and Eurydice, which showed that avant-garde dance—goosed by a shameless kick of Vegas vulgarity—still has the power to shock. The warnings before the show were explicit. Audiences were told to expect mature themes, nudity and 15 seconds of strobe lighting. As I looked around the audience at Toronto’s Bluma Appel Theatre, I wondered how this elderly-skewed theatre crowd would handle the onslaught of flesh they were about to witness. There’s something supremely weird about seeing an acrobatic performance of convulsing half-naked bodies attended by folks whose limbs are so ancient that navigating the stairs to the washroom becomes a heroic odyssey.
By Brian D. Johnson - Monday, October 17, 2011 at 10:39 AM - 1 Comment
I thought I was going to see a play, something I always brace myself for, like a potentially tedious hike in uncertain weather. I was wrong. I Send You This Cadmium Red is a film, a painting, an essay, a concert—and, yes, a play—all at once. Therefore none of the above. It’s something else entirely. And it’s extraordinary. It’s a contemplation of colour via words, music, words and projected animation. Colour is explored as a substance, a medium, a mood—an opaque fact and a window into infinity—but also as something tangible, almost human. And I can’t remember the last time I saw a play or a film in which the inevitable apartheid between form and content, style and substance, was so elegantly obliterated by a piece that is so utterly what it’s about.
Directed by Daniel Brooks, and produced by Andrew Burashko’s Art of Time Ensemble in association with Canadian Stage, I Send You Cadmium Red was originally commissioned as a radio work by the BBC and scored by British composer Gavin Bryars. It’s based on a book of correspondence about the nature of colour between two Johns, the visionary writer and painter John Berger and his painter/filmmaker friend John Christie. The original music was recorded in studio, and the Art of Time production is the first instance of it being performed live onstage. Continue…
By Claire Ward - Friday, October 14, 2011 at 10:28 AM - 25 Comments
An off-broadway show in New York looks at what it takes to make all those iPods
In what seems like an endless stream of Steve Jobs tributes and devotions, one voice stands out as a reality check. Mike Daisey, New York-based author and monologuist, is hoping to cut through the nostalgia and remind people of the nastier side of Jobs’ legacy.
“I’m almost tired of hearing what a genius he is,” says the 37-year-old creator and performer of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, a one-man show about the life and work of the former Apple CEO that opened off-broadway at the Public Theater in New York City on Tuesday. “I think he’d be disgusted by this level of nostalgia. He was a very unrelenting, unwavering person—focus was really the centre of his skill set, his genius.”
Daisey’s show touches on everything from Jobs’s mastery of industrial design to the objectionable practices of iPhone and iPad manufacturing plants in China. The monologue tells the story of Jobs’s obsessions and his impact on humanity—from Silicon Valley to Shenzhen. Daisey’s style is semi-improvised, or what he calls “extemporaneous monologing”—which means the show differs from night to night, often depending on the mood of the room. “The work happens in the room so it’s hard to say what is going to change,” says Daisey. “At the same time, the fundamentals of the story aren’t affected by his death. In fact, they’ll be amplified. The end of an era, the loss of individual personal power in the face of corporatism.” Continue…
By Brian D. Johnson - Monday, October 3, 2011 at 5:52 PM - 3 Comments
I would never presume to review theatre. I have enough trouble evaluating film, when the work is at least fixed. Even if the critic’s viewpoint is fluid, and the film may seem to change with repeated viewings, it’s still the same show. But theatre is a moving target. The physical chemistry of the actors, with each other and the audience, changes from one night to the next. And I spend so much time in movies that the flesh-and-blood presence of actors—the visceral bond between viewer and performer—makes me nervous, sometimes claustrophobic. Even if, on rare occasions, it can be electrifying, frankly, I find so much theatre too . . . well, theatrical.
This apologia serves to introduce some observations about seeing Paul Gross and Kim Cattrall in Private Lives, which I caught last week in Toronto at the Royal Alex after it had premiered to rave reviews. This is a show you want to root for. Originating last year with Cattrall in London, it’s now Broadway-bound, and Cattrall and Gross form the closest thing to a theatrical royal couple Canada has had since I don’t when. They’re both witty, debonair, confidently seductive and—pushing the envelope of middle age—defiantly sexy. Casting them as romantic misfits in a vintage screwball comedy seems inspired. Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, September 28, 2011 at 11:30 AM - 0 Comments
There’s nothing whimsical or cute about the star
“We thought it was an experimental show. We had no idea it would turn into a commercial show,” Tom Morris says of War Horse. When Morris, co-director Marianne Elliott and writer Nick Stafford adapted Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel, it hadn’t been done on stage or screen. That’s because although there are human characters, the real star is a horse who gets sold to the army during the First World War, giving the show what Morris calls “a central character who doesn’t speak.” The stage version, first presented at Britain’s National Theatre in 2007, has turned that horse’s fortunes around: the show is running on Broadway, and will have its Canadian premiere at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre in February 2012. The production even inspired Steven Spielberg to make a film of the same book, to be released at the end of this year. And how did War Horse create a spectacle that could compete with big, realistic-looking movies? With one of the oldest, most artificial theatrical techniques in the world: puppeteering.
Handspring, the company that created the puppets for War Horse, uses what Morris calls “a complex system of pulleys and things like that,” requiring “extraordinary strength” from the three people required to manipulate one horse. It sometimes requires different abilities than the average puppet show. “Very few of them tend to be trained puppeteers,” Morris says. “Some of them, but it’s not the main skill base that we tend to work from.” And because the titular horse, Joey, is the focus of the evening, much of the emotional energy comes from the puppeteers, who simulate the different ways his tail can move or his reactions to being caught in the middle of the war: he doesn’t talk, but Elliott says he’s “incredibly articulate physically.”
The use of puppets on stage is nothing new, but puppets are associated with fantasy and whimsy. Avenue Q uses Sesame Street-style puppets, and Julie Taymor’s productions, like The Lion King and the first version of Spider-Man, use puppets to simulate things that can be done in comic books and animation. But War Horse’s puppets are not supposed to be cartoonish: Elliott says that they were determined not to “anthropomorphize the horses. They do only what a horse would do.” Few major productions since the 1965 Sherlock Holmes musical Baker Street— which had marionettes simulating a parade in Victorian London—have used puppets so straightforwardly; Morris says Handspring’s challenge was to deliver “a deadpan puppet.”
By Jaime Weinman - Monday, September 12, 2011 at 10:30 AM - 1 Comment
Audiences aren’t quite so enamoured these days of the once celebrated playwright
Is George Bernard Shaw box-office poison? The Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake , Ont., announced that its 2011-12 season won’t feature any of its namesake’s plays in its main Festival Theatre, instead putting two of his works in smaller venues. Richard Ouzounian wrote in the Toronto Star that the current Festival Theatre production of Shaw’s Heartbreak House “has been reportedly playing to houses as low as 30 per cent.” Jackie Maxwell, artistic director of the festival, told Maclean’s that while some Shaw plays have been “hugely popular” on the smaller stages, the playwright can’t carry big, expensive shows every year: “What I’m finding strategically,” she says, “is that the notion of always having a Shaw play that can hit it big on the Festival stage is unrealistic.” That’s why she says “being the Shaw Festival is frankly a lot more than doing Shaw plays.”
You don’t have to agree with Germaine Greer, who took to the Guardian this year to call Shaw “less irreverent than irrelevant,” to see that the Irish iconoclast’s fame has slipped since 1962, when the festival was founded. And the neglect starts at a young age: Leonard Conolly, a professor at Trent University and president of the International Shaw Society, says Shaw “is less studied in high schools than he used to be”; Maxwell says “we’re dealing with entire generations of kids who don’t get taught Shaw and who wouldn’t immediately know who he was.”
No one would have expected this when the Nobel Prize-winning Shaw died in 1950. Widely considered the greatest English-language playwright since Shakespeare, it seemed natural that Canada should give him a festival a few years after Stratford started. But now, Maxwell says, Shaw “doesn’t have as many of those big pieces” that everyone has read. Without a star—like Christopher Plummer in Stratford’s version of Caesar and Cleopatra a few years ago—many Shaw plays won’t draw a crowd on their own. “If a theatre does Hamlet, everybody knows about that,” Conolly says. “If a theatre does Misalliance, it simply won’t be familiar.”
By Emma Teitel - Sunday, August 14, 2011 at 6:52 PM - 1 Comment
A hockey fan choreographs the night Vancouver famously embarrassed itself
Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was, famously, a dance that started a riot, but until now, no one has seen the process reversed. Enter 41-year-old Edmond Kilpatrick—a Vancouver modern dance choreographer and fierce Canucks fan (though not the cruiser-toppling, Bay-looting kind of fierce) who was so disturbed by Vancouver’s Stanley Cup riot in June, he decided to dance about it. “The riot stole the entire hockey experience from me,” he says, “and the piece is a comment about what happened that night.”
The piece Kilpatrick is referring to is Party Boys, a three-man modern dance re-enacting the June 15 riot that followed the Vancouver Canucks’ 4-0 loss to the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals. “I thought we could congregate downtown and watch the game together,” Kilpatrick says, in reference to the throngs of Vancouverites who filled Georgia Street to watch the showdown on an enormous screen, “but obviously we couldn’t be trusted.” It’s hard to disagree with him. When hockey fans—and a few opportunistic anarchists—realized that their beloved Canucks would not be hoisting the Cup on home ice, storefronts were demolished, cars were vandalized and set on fire, and pictures of young men emerging from burning buildings clutching miscellaneous retail items—their Canucks jerseys pulled up to mask their faces—were more common than pictures of the Stanley Cup itself. Kilpatrick wants his piece—which runs August 10-12 on a 10-by-13-foot stage (the show is part of a larger production called Dances for a Small Stage at Vancouver’s Legion on the Drive)—to answer two questions: “Who were those guys and why did this happen?”
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, August 10, 2011 at 9:00 AM - 0 Comments
Hardly anyone has heard the whole opera—well, except for the ‘Lone Ranger’ bit.
Rossini’s William Tell starts with one of the most famous pieces of Western music: the overture, ending with what used to be known as the Lone Ranger theme song. But the music that comes after is just as good, and hardly anyone has heard it. A new recording of Rossini’s last opera, by conductor Antonio Pappano, is the first in 20 years, and only the second to use the original French words. The story of the Swiss freedom fighter, and his ability to shoot an apple off his son’s head, is rarely produced because it’s “over four hours long, expensive to cast and to rehearse,” says Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley, who sings the title role for Pappano. Their collaboration may go a long way toward proving something even Rossini doubted himself: this piece is long, but worth performing.
Pappano has been on a mission to revive Tell. He explains in the accompanying booklet that its importance “struck me like a thunderbolt,” and he managed to get EMI to record his series of live concerts in Rome (with enthusiastic applause included after some numbers). As the biggest opera Rossini ever wrote, it had a major influence on epic opera and theatre, making it possible to write musical theatre on huge political themes. “This is one of the first examples of grand opera,” Finley says. “A love interest intertwines with historic fact, treachery and successful rebellion.”
If the story is unusually weighty for an opera, the music also comes as a surprise to people who know Rossini from light comedies like The Barber of Seville. Instead of the display pieces that have made Rossini a favourite with singers, Tell has a more serious approach. Finley says that the role of Tell “is different from Rossini’s other lead roles in that it does not have a showy aria,” and instead climaxes in “a brief prayer-like piece directed to his son before the famous arrow-through-the-apple scene.” The most important role in the show is not for the star singers but the chorus, which provides the highlight of the second act as several groups gather to fight against an oppressive government. Almost every composer of operas in the 19th century was influenced by scenes like these; the composer Hector Berlioz, who hated Rossini and his influence, was won over by the “emotion and anguish” in Tell’s aria.